Now that's what I call music

Music buffs have never taken albums such as Ibiza Chillout '98 seriously. Well, maybe they should. Nick Coleman explains how he learnt to stop worrying and love the compilation album
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Compilations are the engine of popular music. They are what drives it. And what, since the demise of the single and the LP, sells it best. You've seen the TV commercials, the billboards, experienced the relentless circular thunking in clothes shops and restaurants.

People love them too, although they think they shouldn't. Compilations, goes the theory, are the junkbonds of the music world – a degraded currency, worth less at face value than in its constituent parts. Compilations are not artistic. They are commercial. Musicians don't control their contents, record company suits do. Yet currently, compilations account for between 25 and 30 per cent of album sales in this country. One in every four CDs sold in this country is a compilation.

Which is not to say that Bullwackie's Jah Son Invasion would sell by the cartload were it released tomorrow and in the same quiet way in which it first appeared in the early Eighties. That's partly because the collected works of Bobby Sarkie, Jah Skerta, Joy Card and other members of that New York-Jamaican dubwise confraternity may not be of compelling interest to today's listeners, and partly because Bullwackie's do not now have, as they didn't have then, the resources to market the thing with a TV ad campaign composed of startlingly dumb visual clichés. Jah Son Invasion is an entirely different can of worms from The Classic Chillout Album LXXIV. For which we can all be grateful. Not least because, however bizarre it may feel to those of elevated spirit, both Jah Son and Classic Chillout spring from the same cultural root. Compilations go back almost to the dawn of pop time and have never aspired to anything other than commercial expediency. But there's expediency and expediency, as we shall see.

The first TV-advertised hits compilations materialised in 1973. They were the creation of those Reithian vessels of modern populism Ronco, K-Tel and Arcade, all of which licensed hits from major record companies then crammed them on to 10-tracks-a-side LPs in nasty jackets (with added non-hit filler if there weren't enough real hits to go round). Amusingly, individual tracks were sometimes abbreviated to get them on to the record, while sound reproduction was invariably of public-convenience quality.

Naturally, connoisseurs of real music did not touch Ronco compilations. But ordinary folk coughed up for them,not by the squillion but in significant quantities. All girls had at least one.

Real music blokes did not, though. But that doesn't mean the industry didn't try to tempt them. Who can forget Fill Your Head With Rock, The Rock Machine Turns You On, El Pea and Wowie Zowie: the World of Progressive Rock? Of course you can't. These were the samplers released by major record companies to enhance the market profile of individual "specialist" labels, and on the off-chance that some hippy might hear Quintessence on Wowie Zowie and go, like, wowie zowie. No one ever paid money for them though.

The creative and commercial warrant for Seventies sampler culture was provided, perversely enough, by the big daddy of all compilation series, Motown Chartbusters. This ostensibly endless sequence of albums sluiced together the hits of Detroit's black pop factory as they spilled incontinently over a gagging world throughout the Sixties and early-Seventies. Vol Three (the silver one) remains the greatest party album ever, despite what the manufacturers of The Greatest Party Album Ever LXXVII might contend.

The Chartbusters series sold as incontinently as the singles did, and it sold because Motown, in the Sixties was the best singles manufacturer in the world and was hopeless at doing "proper" albums. Why buy crummy filler-stuffed LPs by the individual artists when you can get their hits all in one shot?

This was the idea partially salvaged in the UK by the sages at Ronco/K-Tel/Arcade but not acted upon by the majors for another 10 years until the advent of the Now That's What I Call Music... series in 1983, courtesy of EMI and Virgin (which recently reached both its half-century of releases and topped 50 million sales). Within very few years, all the majors had combined in various permutations to produce their own hits compilation series with the upshot, in 1989, of the dedicated "Compilations" sales chart. Old Quintessence fans shuddered in their yurts.

In between the golden Chartbusters age and the new industrialism of the Now series, sandwiched between the crass commercialism of Ronco and the daft sampledelica of the mainstream rock subsidiaries, a fallow market grew richly rank with independent compilations released by tiny labels in out-of-the-way places. Jamaica for instance.

The late Seventies saw roots reggae's great flowering – a parochial, ad hoc, piecemeal singles marketplace that relied for impetus and excitement on the rapid portage of hot new music about the island. Plus, in addition to this convivial home environment, there also existed an overseas market in the UK gagging to supply its own incipient sound-system culture with anything rough-hewn and reeking of ganja. How better to get extra mileage out of short-run singles releases than to bang them out in compilation form for export or license to cultists somewhere over the horizon? The result? Lovely, scruffy, precious objects which I treasure stupidly. As do later generations their own fetishes. Perhaps the single most important imprint in the dissemination of Eighties dance music culture was the Streetsounds label, a British operation designed to bring cool, hard-to-get dance records to youthful British pockets in single shots. Streetsounds had their own look, their own ideological posture and therefore their own cachet. And they created the conditions that would give rise to the lifestyle concept compilation, typified by the TV-advertised white-sands-and-chardonnay Chillout themes of the past 12 months. But Streetsounds to Chillout is another story.

Some years ago I was visited by a searing insight. "The future," I announced in the pub, "will be one big compilation." I was thinking about the cottage-industrial triumph of dance music. I was also probably lamenting the death of the proper "album" – that two-by-20-minute programme of coherently formed, communicative, texty music which had governed the musical experience of anyone born during the 25 years after 1950.

Compact disc, as we all know, does not do 20 minutes. It does 74 minutes. And nobody but an opera fan ever sits down to listen to 74 unbroken minutes of music. But 74 minutes will subdivide very happily into discreet chunks of music, that abut each other pleasingly but otherwise require coherence only at the conceptual level. "Nu-metal guitarists under 5ft tall", that sort of thing.

I was right. The future did become one big compilation. In front of me, sitting on my desk, there is a pile of CDs delivered over Christmas: Grankru Records present a Wireless Nation vol 1, Christmas on Death Row, The Goldwax Story, Waxin' Lyrical: the History of Rap. Compilations, all of them. And each has a better prospect of getting a play in my kitchen than the last Mercury Rev album. Also, they are more likely than the Rev to yield something tasty for the most important compilation of them all – the one you manufacture randomly yourself as curator-in-chief of your own taste. Home-taping has been saving music for years.

Thanks to Paul Williams at 'Music Week' and to Beanos records (